Remember the movie "Minority Report"? In one scene, Chief of PreCrime John Anderton (played by actor Tom Cruise) walks through a mall and is constantly approached by 3-dimensional holograms trying to entice him to buy certain products. That particular scene in the 2002 movie was one of the watershed moments for displaying a then-futuristic vision of the commercial application of Augmented Reality (AR).

A scene from the movie "Minority Report": Advertisement using 3D holograms

But let's step back for a moment: What is Augmented Reality in the first place? According to the Concise FINTECH Compendium (Patrick Schueffel, 2017), Augmented Reality "is an enhanced version of the physical, real-world reality of which elements are superimposed by computer-generated or extracted real-world sensory input such as sound, video, graphics or haptics." In the case of visual AR, information projected into the user's field of view, or is overlaid to a video stream showing "the real world". Other realizations enhance the natural environment or situation by providing audio and/or haptic information. AR is the cousin of Virtual Reality (VR) where an entire audio-visual environment is computer generated.

For a long time, AR and VR applications were mostly found in highly specialized professional niches. For instance, Head-up-Displays (HUD) have been in use in military aviation since the 1950s, and "immersion rooms" to virtually "walk through" hydro-carbon reservoirs were pioneered in the oil industry as early as in the late 1980s.

A HUD supplies the pilot with vital information during the landing phase

However, in the consumer market, computer gamers were early pioneers of AR and VR: With their often geeky-looking specialized headset, gamers explored virtual worlds to their liking.

Testing VR devices such as headsets and gloves in 1989

Then, powerful mobile devices, smartphones, and tablets, hit the consumer market: Equipped with high-resolution screens and ever improving cameras, and packed with powerful processing units suddenly "AR in everybody's hand" became a distinct possibility. Professional companies began publishing AR-based games, some of which caused veritable crazes like Pokèmon Go by Nintendo released for iOS and Android devices in 2016. This game uses the mobile device GPS to locate, capture, battle, and train virtual creatures ("Pokèmon") which appear - when looked at on the mobile device's screen - as if they are in the player's real-world location.

Chasing a Pokèmon using a smartphone

Lately, Apple and Google have engaged in a race to release increasingly powerful AR software development kits (SDKs). In 2017, Apple created ARKit for its iOS-based devices, followed in early 2018 by Google with ARCore for the Android world. These SDKs allow skilled software engineers to create powerful AR applications for mobile devices - without writing complex AR code from scratch - which opens up endless possibilities.

Now that AR applications can find their way into everybody's hand, what are the benefits? Let's look at a few areas where mobile AR applications provide value to both business and its customers.

AR applications can help increase customer satisfaction

CapTech recently developed some AR proof of concepts including an AR wayfinding application prototype that helps children (and their parents) find the way to the right department in a hospital. Navigating the corridors of an unknown office building (in this case a hospital) is often frightening - especially for children.(1)

Finding the way to the right hospital department

The way-finding app employs gamification in the form of an AR-powered Treasure Hunt to make the hospital experience less intimidating for children and more efficient for parents while helping hospitals ensure that patients make it to their appointments on time. This results in increased customer satisfaction and less loss-time for the hospital.

AR applications can help improve safety

In addition to the solution above, one CapTech team developed a proof of concept AR app that visualizes underground pipes and cables.

Visualizing underground pipelines and cables

This app can help consumers avoid mishaps when they need to do some digging or even excavation on their property: They simply scan the surface at the location where they want to dig with a smartphone or tablet, and the app visualizes any potentially dangerous underground obstacles such as pipes or cables. The consumer gets immediate feedback whether it is safe to dig at that spot or not. Thus, the risk of service interruptions, costly repair, and even potential bodily harm can be decreased. A version of this app for utility maintenance crews could also assist them during maintenance and repair calls.

AR applications can support communication with customers

For an electric utility company, CapTech developed an AR application that visualizes the locations of to-be-installed power equipment. Many customers were concerned that those "big green boxes" would be an eye-sore that would seriously impact the aesthetics of their property.

Showing the possible placement of power boxes in the customer's property

Using the AR app, the company representative can now show their customers exactly where a power box could be placed and what it would look like. The app can even "plant" virtual shrubs thus visualizing how the power box can potentially be hidden from sight. In most cases using the AR app alleviates the customers' concerns.

AR applications can help save money

Recently, some car manufacturers stopped printing owner's manuals for their car. Instead, they started deploying AR-based user guides such as the one shown below.

Explaining the functions of a car dashboard

Aside from the fact that almost nobody reads those lengthy manuals (in the entirety), those manuals are difficult to keep up to date, and usually, they get lost after some time anyway. Now, with a cool-looking app in their hands, drivers can pull up information about their cars in an intuitive way. The benefit for the car company is that it is easier to get updates and corrections into the driver's hand and that they save the costs for printing the manuals. And for the driver, it is much easier and intuitive to look up information.

AR applications can help sell

Giving potential buyers all relevant information about the item they consider purchasing is a very powerful tool win over the customer. This holds true not only for day-to-day purchases but also for big transactions.

Providing house-hunters with pertinent information about the house they are interested in

CapTech has also prototyped an AR app giving potential house buyers a curbside view of their dream house enriched with all pertinent information such as price, rooms, local businesses, and amenities.

All the examples above illustrate that AR applications are much more than just nice eye-candy, exciting games, or technology for technology's sake. While having been available to professional specialists for a long time, AR now pushes into the open for everyone's use which provides value to both consumers and businesses. Benefits include easier and more intuitive access to information and cost saving.

Sources:

(1)Hospital Wayfinding: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19916342

Hyundai: http://www.quytech.com/blog/augmented-reality-instruction-manual-user-manual/

Headset: https://www.wired.com/2016/04/editors-letter-may-2016/

Pokemon Go: https://www.embedded-vision.com/industry-analysis/blog/augmented-reality-finally-hits-mass-market-pok%C3%A9mon-go-what%E2%80%99s-next